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January 23, 2013
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Jail inmate who killed himself had been arrested after alleged suicide attempt

The Grass Valley man who committed suicide at the county jail Tuesday morning had been arrested the week prior after reportedly cutting himself in a possible suicide attempt.

Raymond James Pistella, 51, had gone up to the second tier of a jail pod, which overlooked a “day area,” and climbed over the metal railing, Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal said.

Pistella then dove head-first to the ground floor, hitting a table and incurring major head injuries. He was pronounced dead at the scene, Royal said.

Pistella had been arrested Thursday night by Grass Valley Police officers after they responded to a report that a man was cutting himself.

Dispatch reports indicated that he was bleeding from the wrist and the head and possibly had attempted suicide.

According to Grass Valley Police Capt. Rex Marks, Pistella’s injuries were self-inflicted after a domestic violence incident.

“There was alcohol involved,” he said.

Pistella was arrested on suspicion of vandalism and spousal abuse, and a mental health evaluation was requested before he was booked at the jail, Marks said. Officers also collected a number of items that could be construed as dangerous at the request of Pistella’s girlfriend, including a knife, a pellet gun and several AirSoft pistols.

“He was evaluated at the hospital, and he was medically cleared there,” Marks said. “The arresting officer was present and had contact with the mental health worker, who confirmed he was cleared for booking.”

Marks added that due to confidentiality issues, he does not know the extent or the specifics of that mental health evaluation.

“We do know Mental Health was present at the ER and gave their clearance,” he said.

Marks added that it is hard to second-guess a clearance, saying the behavior between the time of a person’s arrest and the time of that person’s evaluation can be “180 degrees different.”

Nevada County Behavioral Health Director Michael Heggarty said his department has crisis workers who go to the emergency room and the jail to do evaluations, specifically to see if the person needs to be hospitalized — what would be an involuntary hold.

Heggarty said he could not release any information on Pistella, however.

Nevada County Sheriff’s Lt. Bill Smethers said if a law enforcement agency brings someone to the jail with an uncleared mental health issue, personnel would refuse to book them.

“The onus is on the arresting agency,” he said. “If the arresting agency feels they need an evaluation, they would notify Behavioral Health they need a medical clearance and a mental health evaluation at the ER. If they brought somebody to the jail and said there was a mental health issue, our medical staff would refuse them and tell them they would need (to get) clearance.”

Smethers said the jail had no record of a mental health evaluation having been performed on Pistella.

That likely is because the Grass Valley Police Department does not use a state-issued form in which an officer can apply for a 72-hour hold because of liability concerns.

“We don’t use it, but the county does,” Marks said.

Marks added that his department uses a form that only states that the person has been medically cleared. The information that a person has had a mental health evaluation typically is conveyed to jail personnel verbally, he said.

As of press time, Marks could not confirm whether that officer did, in fact, communicate that information.

A crucial piece of paperwork also is in question.

A document is typically filled out by Behavioral Health when it evaluates someone, according to both Marks and Smethers,

Smethers said that document should have accompanied Pistella from the hospital to the jail.

“I’ve been told nothing was mentioned (about a mental health evaluation), and they didn’t see any documentation,” he said. “They would have to show (he) had been cleared by Mental Health to be booked.”

During the more than four days he was incarcerated, however, Pistella did not exhibit any behavior that would have been of concern, Smethers said.

But Pistella was in Nevada County Superior Court Tuesday morning and had been back at the jail less than an hour before he committed suicide at about 10:30 a.m., he said.

“He talked to the officers prior to that,” Smethers said. “He was upset because he didn’t receive an O.R. (a release on his own recognizance.)”

Marks expressed frustration at the larger picture — how law enforcement entities struggle to handle mental health issues, given their limited resources.

“We are all sitting with our hands tied,” he said. “We need more mental health resources. We have such a high need and such a low availability of needs and treatment centers. We can’t accommodate all the needs that are there.”

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email lkellar@theunion.com or call 530-477-4229.

“We are all sitting with our hands tied. We need more mental health resources.”
— Grass Valley Police Capt. Rex Marks


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The Union Updated Feb 12, 2013 02:39PM Published Jan 31, 2013 08:21AM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.